Sometimes it’s personal, writes Matt Brennan in this week’s “Now and Then” column on the two documentaries The Kids Grow Up and Sherman’s March (trailers below):
One is inherently subjective, a collation of interviews, impressions, laughter and tears. The other is only ostensibly objective, a historical artifact turned private heirloom. Both, however, are sure on one thing: there really is no place like home video.
Doug Block has made a career out of having a family. His most well-known documentary, 51 Birch Street (2005), was a biopsy of the mysteries of his parents’ marriage; his most recent, The Kids Grow Up (HBO, DVD released July 19), excavates his own life as a father during the year before his daughter, Lucy, leaves for college. This is an uneasy negotiation between private and public. (Imagine your own father following you around with a camcorder, then putting a video of you crying up on YouTube.) But if it feels at times like exploitation, The Kids Grow Up is also a little brave. Block risks becoming the villain of his own home movie.
Wherever you come down on the issue, it’s hard not to identify with the Blocks’ variable emotional thermostat. Doug struggles with memories of his father as cold and distant. Lucy twirls innocently around the living room as a five-year-old ballerina, dreaming of driving an ice cream truck. Block’s wife, Marjorie, battles depression with a tight, wan face. Anyone who has ever left someone or been left behind themselves will understand his niggling worry that there was something he missed. “One memory continues to haunt me,” he says, “an especially long and intimate chat with Lucy on camera… Somehow no sound got recorded.”
The Kids Grow Up offers and in some sense requires full disclosure, so it should be mentioned here that my grandfather was dying of pancreatic cancer when I left for college in California. Like Lucy, I struggled to balance my family's demands and independence. When my grandfather died on the first day of class, I obeyed my father's wishes but not my heart and stayed 3,000 miles away.
This documentary requires an examination of your own life in order to wend your way into it. Anyone who has been part of a family will understand Block’s feeling of being unmoored, acknowledge the impossibility of separating oneself from the narrative. This may be why, in the end, the film seems so much roomier than the mere portrait of a family in transition: it jogs the memory, becoming personal for both subject and spectator. It is strewn with the hard, sweet wisdom that family life is one long improvisation in intimacy, full of compromises and wrong turns. Interviewing his father about the experience of parenting, of living, Block captures it in microcosm: “We don’t know too much,” the father says. “We learn as we go along. We learn too late, and even then it’s difficult.”
Not everything about family is strenuous, though. Sometimes it means being able to call “bullshit.” Filmmaker Ross McElwee’s sister does exactly that early on in Sherman’s March (1986), which, despite our director’s stiffly sonorous narration, comes off a lot lighter in tone than The Kids Grow Up . She won’t buy his feeble defense of the girlfriend who unceremoniously dumped him, and pitches the idea that he meet some women on the rebound. “You have an instant rapport with people,” she tells him, “because you have a camera.”
It turns out she’s right. What began as an idea for a historical documentary retracing the path of William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched-earth journey from Atlanta to the sea turns into a scruffy portrait of the artist as a hopeless romantic. If the succession of love interests he portrays is to be believed, I’m unconscionably envious — Ross McElwee, aging history nerd, has a better sex life than I do. Hell, Ross McElwee has a better sex life than Ryan Reynolds.
The women are offbeat, funky people, more than a little crazy, and they’re the main reason the movie works. Pat does “cellulite exercises” — lewd squats performed sans underwear — fantasizes about a starring role as a prophetess with a disembodied head, and goes to Atlanta sure that she’ll make Burt Reynolds fall in love with her. (No, really.) Then there’s Claudia, a Southern belle in dark glasses who is clear that you never forget how to make love but also believes in the Rapture, and Winnie, living largely alone tending cows in a swamp outside Savannah.
Scratch that: I’m no longer envious.
All this is enjoyable enough, though McElwee doesn’t give us much to go on when it comes to explaining why he’s into nutters. Other than his frequent nightmares about nuclear war, he presents himself as the straight man swept up by Judy Holliday types. Though he courts exploitation less openly than Block does with his daughter, the dishonesty by omission makes him look like a simpering misogynist, or at least someone uncomfortably obsessed with willful eccentricity. To wit, his sister has an impromptu eyelift and “fanny tuck” (“Do they trim it they way you’d trim a piece of beef?” he asks), while Claudia smiles dopily at a Georgian isolationist railing against the government.
Good fun in this vein can be had during Sherman’s March , which carries the unnecessarily weighty subtitle “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During the Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” But much of the nearly three-hour running time is so slackly paced, so meditative, that the middle 90 minutes might best function as something to keep an eye on while you make soup. There are moments in which even McElwee seems bored. “Speaking of apple juice,” he asks offhandedly at the one-hour mark, “is there any bourbon?” I took his advice. I poured myself a drink and read an article about the debt crisis in the Times, and when I came back he was still there, like an old friend who presses on with the story while you grab another bottle of wine.